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The mundane and the moral: Mandela's 'Conversations With Myself'

October 20, 2010 | 11:28 am


Nelson Mandela is among the transformative figures of the 20th and early 21st centuries, a moral leader who became a political leader, a prisoner of conscience who became a secular saint. His story has been told in "Long Walk to Freedom," the 1995 autobiography that recounted his 27-year imprisonment in South Africa and his ascension to that country’s presidency just four years after his 1990 release.

Yet as Verne Harris, project leader of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue, writes in an introduction to Mandela’s new book, "Conversations With Myself" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 454 pp., $28), "Long Walk to Freedom" was conceived as the statement of a collective voice. "The original manuscript was drafted on Robben Island by what Ahmed Kathrada -- his longtime comrade, friend and fellow prisoner -- describes as 'an editorial board,' " Harris explains. "Conversations With Myself" is an attempt to show another side of Mandela, more personal and off the cuff. Composed of interviews, letters, notes and other writings, it is, Harris suggests, "inspired most directly by Marcus Aurelius's 'Meditations,' a volume of thoughts, musings and aphorisms."

That’s a big claim, of course, despite Mandela’s stature. And it should, perhaps, go without saying that "Conversations With Myself" doesn’t live up to it, despite offering an at-times fascinating look at Mandela’s inner life. Made up of hundreds of disconnected chunks of text, some as brief as a line or two, it is a grab bag of a book, a festschrift of disconnected notes. That can be fascinating, as in Mandela’s reflections on the need for national unity, but it is also often trivial: Among the items here is a list, from September 1980, of food items and their cost.

In his foreword, President Obama writes that "Conversations With Myself" offers "a glimpse into the life that Mandela lived -- from the mundane routines that helped to pass the time in prison, to the decisions that he made as President." That’s true enough, I suppose, although in the end, it doesn’t do much to advance our understanding of the 92-year-old Mandela as either public figure or human being. And yet, there is, as always, something profound and illuminating about Mandela, even in these attenuated bits and pieces, these fragments of a life. As he writes in a 1975 letter to his then-wife, Winnie: "Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others -- qualities which are within easy reach of every soul -- are the foundation of one’s spiritual life. Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes."

 -- David L. Ulin

Photo: Copies of the book "Conversations With Myself" in Johannesburg, South Africa, earlier this month. Credit: Associated Press